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Mountains Of Whipped Cream, Streets Of Toast

TV animation has progressed from the days of hand-drawn cels and computer rendered images. “Special Agent Oso,” raises the creative bar by offering multi-media rendered animation, an interactive website, mobile casts, and On Demand programming.

Oso, voiced by actor Sean Astin, is a stuffed panda who’s training to be a special agent. Created by Ford Riley as homage to the James Bond franchise, Oso works for U.N.I.Q.U. E. (United Network for Investigating Quite Usual Events), an international organization comprised of stuffed animals. Their mission is to help children accomplish everyday tasks, such as cleaning a room or mailing a letter. Along with his electronic sidekick “Pawpilot,” Oso learns three easy steps each episode that allow him to complete his mission.

In 2004, Disney hired Jamie Mitchell to act as director and help develop the look of the show. Mitchell, having worked on diverse animated fare such as “Hey Arnold!,” Universal Studio’s 3D Jimmy Neutron theme park attraction, and animated sequences used in Queen’s music videos, utilized his past experience to develop Oso’s world.

“I was introduced to animation by my uncle, Robert Mitchell. In 1965 he left for London to work on a movie called ’Yellow Submarine.’ He left as a Californian who worked in animation, and returned a Beatle! ” said Mitchell. “I remember being fascinated with this briefcase he brought back with him. It was full of drawings from the movie, including the Blue Meanies.”

While watching the animation of the 60s; stop motion, clay animation, sand animation and classic cel animation, Mitchell developed a taste for the genre. “I wanted to do it all,” said Mitchell. He attended the film program at Loyola Marymount University. “I learned how to use pictures to tell a story,” recalled Mitchell of his college animation classes.

Looking for animation work in the mid-80s, Mitchell felt “the business was dormant.” In 1985, Disney opened the Walt Disney Television Animation studio. Mitchell agreed to work on their first series, “Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears.” This program was the studio’s first major serialized television animation, and is also credited by some animators and historians as being a major force in initiating the television animation boom of the late 80s and 90s.

“The series exploded with possibilities. It was great working on a series where quality was number one,” said Mitchell. “I enjoyed the opportunity to do stuff on a lower budget with less pressure than one has working on a feature.”

After ten years of working on Disney animated TV shows, Mitchell felt that TV animation was becoming “predictable” for him. That’s when he discovered Nickelodeon. While working at Nickelodeon, Mitchell began to experiment with some different animation tools to help tell a story.

“When we developed ’Hey Arnold!’ we used Prismacolor pencils,” said Mitchell. “The pencils allowed us to get a Crayola effect. It had an appearance that a kid could have drawn. This helps give the program an appeal to the kids that are watching it.”

“Special Agent Oso” takes the animation experimentation to another level. The series combines digital cut-outs, 3D Photoshop, Flash animation, collage, paper mache, and food in its multi-media approach.

“The multi-media format allows for a really fun approach,” said Mitchell. “When you’re dealing with pre-schoolers, you want to make things relatable. You want them to think ’I’ve seen something like this before.’ With multi-media, we can basically use anything. We decided to pick stuff one would find around a pre-schooler: yarn, felt, food, such as crackers and cookies.”

Mitchell works closely with his creative team to come up with the best material to incorporate into the animation.

“We were working on an episode were Oso has to help mail a letter. In our first pass the sidewalk felt so cold. I said that I thought it should look edible,” said Mitchell. “We thought a lot about texture and what would work on a sidewalk. The crust of a pie was suggested, and that fit. We digitized some pie crust and worked it in. In looking at it, we decided it needed to be less brown. We played with the color until it looked just right.”

“Once you begin the process, it just grows,” said Mitchell. At this point, everyday items the team was surrounded by became open to incorporation. While speaking with a designer about creating a mountain canyon, a toaster popped up. Mitchell suggested the color and texture of the toast would work perfectly for the canyon surface.

“You have to rely on a certain amount of fluidity. The material you are using has to apply to the scene,” said Mitchell. “There has to be some kind of relatability.”

Traditional 2D animation has basic levels of cels: a background, the characters, and a foreground level. Digital animation has roughly 70-90 levels of information. 3D animation can have thousands of levels or files. “Special Agent Oso” has a team designated to 3D aspects of the show.

“Take an eyeball,” said Mitchell. “You have the white of the eyeball, and the black. Then you have your eye color. Then you have your sheen. Then you have shadows. You may easily have 12 levels of information just for that one eye. The amount of data you’re dealing with is huge. Taking all that into consideration for each scene is thousands of files.”

Mitchell did not want to limit Oso’s world strictly to 3D. Not only is the budget tighter for 3D, but the level of expression in television animation is limited.

“You’ll see a lot of homogenization in 3D television,” said Mitchell. “Character’s motions and eyeballs all look the same.” Mitchell likes to include textures and a variety of material in his animation to keep it from being too synthetic.

Mitchell feels the spy genre is a great asset to the designers. “It opens up possibilities to make the show in a very realistic fashion,” said Mitchell. “It’s action adventure for pre-schoolers, this hybrid between Bond and a cartoon.”

The team fashioned recurring characters and devices of the monorail, the jet Chuck Yeager used to break the sound barrier in 1947, and the Aston Martin made famous by James Bond. “We’ve used real leather for the seats in the car,” said Mitchell.

Inspired by an animation sequence he helped create for the music video of Queen’s “These Are the Days of our Lives,” Mitchell has employed the use of a pastel palette for “Special Agent Oso.” “When we were doing the video, we wanted the animation to look like a Marc Chagall painting. We found a way to make a pastel painting look like it was moving through a hand drawn technique,” said Mitchell. “I showed this example to my Oso team, and we’ve found a way to make it work.”

Mitchell points out that “Sesame Street” was a ground breaker in using multi-media, but Oso is introducing elements that are unconventional and not seen in most serial animation programs. “We are challenging the norms and pushing the envelope. My hat is off to Nancy (Kanter, SVP, Playhouse Disney Worldwide) for taking a chance with this show.”

Mitchell enjoys the challenge presented in creating animation for pre-schoolers. “For a pre-schooler, it may be the first time the viewer has ever seen something before. You have a responsibility of representing items to a viewer for the first time, and giving them enough time to digest what they see.”

In addition to a regular spot on the Disney Channel’s “Playhouse Disney” Saturday morning television programming, parents and children can log onto for an interactive experience with Oso. In a continuation of the lessons presented on the televised program, children can help the virtual Oso by providing him with additional gear and equipment. They can also customize Oso’s training environments with vehicles and other characters from the show. When they successfully assist Oso in accomplishing a task, they receive a virtual award, or “Digi-Medal.”

All episodes that air will be viewable on the Playhouse Disney website, as well as through mobile devices such as AT&T, Sprint and Verizon.

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